The first essay I ever wrote for Ordinary Times was America 2017 is a Bad Marriage
Everyone hated it.
While I felt most of the criticism was of questionable value, one thing has stuck with me. One thing I was definitely wrong about. America isn’t a bad marriage. Because a bad marriage starts off with love, at least. A bad marriage starts with two people who at one point in time actually wanted to build a life together. They had affection and common ground, mutual goals and dreams and plans. It hurts so bad when a relationship turns toxic because you’ve invested so much love and time and energy only to have your hopes dashed. As it was pointed out to me then, and as I’ve slowly come to realize over the past 18 months, there is no love here in America 2018.
Liberals and conservatives really do hate each other. And maybe they always did. The affection I feel for both liberals and conservatives is an anomaly. So my analogy involving a loving partnership gone awry was probably a poor one.
The other day I happened across a marathon of The Odd Couple. Most of us are old enough to remember that show if only through reruns, but for anyone who isn’t, it’s a comedy about a couple of mismatched roommates. Felix is a neat freak, Oscar’s a slob, and they have to live together in the same small space. Hijinks ensue.
America 2018 is like The Odd Couple.
We don’t want to be here. Nobody wants to be here. We have nothing in common and we don’t even like each other. But due to circumstances beyond our control, here is where we find ourselves. Stuck together with both of our names on the lease. There’s a housing shortage in the city and this place is rent controlled. There’s a convention of traveling salesmen in town so even the fleabag motels are full. Short of a refrigerator box under a bridge, we have nowhere else to go. Now what? I can’t get away from you, you can’t get away from me. We have to inhabit the same space whether we want to or not. We share a kitchen, a bathroom, an Internet connection. I can’t go in my room and shut the door and you can’t go in your room and shut yours because there are too many places we have to coexist. There is only one front door. We can’t even leave without tolerating each other.
Sometimes I need a ride uptown and you have a car. Sometimes you lock yourself out and need my spare key. I need you not to eat my leftover pad thai I’m keeping in the fridge for lunch tomorrow and you need me not to play Skrillex really loud late at night when you have to work in the morning. We both want to have friends over and we need to work out a schedule so one of us doesn’t always get stuck scrubbing the toilet. Beyond peaceful coexistence, our lives are simply better when we work as a team.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to belabor the point. I described the principle better in my first essay and everything in it still applies not only to marriage but to any partnership, voluntary or otherwise. People who come together by choice have to set aside their differences to get life’s wrinkles ironed out, and those tossed together by circumstance have to set aside their differences even more so.
As I was watching The Odd Couple, something occurred that shocked me to my very core. It was like witnessing a historical event from another time and place. Something so foreign, so unimaginable, that it was like watching a unicorn give birth to a phoenix while a midwife from Atlantis watched over the proceedings.
Felix and Oscar got into an argument and they apologized, thought self-critically about what they’d done, freely accepted some of the blame, and made peace with each other.
It went something like this (I’ll paraphrase since I’m not too sure what episode I was watching – it involved a poker game but as I recall about 87% of Odd Couple episodes involve a poker game): Felix: “It was my fault, Oscar, I’m too neat, I’m an annoying fuddy-duddy, I’m a pain in the butt, I demand too much, I should be more laid back.” Oscar: “No, no, Pal, it was totally me, I’m a slob, I should be neater, I’m obnoxious and loud and I smell probably, I’m a lazy jerk, and I should have picked up my crap.” They argued back and forth like that for a while, and not because they were picking over the bones of what they were originally disagreeing about, looking for a nice juicy hunk of meat. They argued only because each of them kept trying to accept the lion’s share of the blame. This went on till they concluded they were mutually wrong. They decided to set the whole kerfluffle aside and move forward with their lives and their friendship.
Seriously, what the actual eff?
Do people really DO that? I sort of have a vague recollection of people behaving reasonably once upon a childhood but it feels like a hallucination or maybe a fever dream. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a situation where both parties involved in a disagreement honestly looked at themselves, at their own behavior, at their own failings, and graciously accepted some of the blame. Without being forced into it by emotional blackmail or argued into submission using sophistry and/or verbal abuse, without any “agreeing to disagree” where everyone walks away still fuming.
I don’t think that’s a thing any more, at least not where politics are concerned (and doesn’t it seem like everything is politics these days?). I don’t think anyone bothers to look self-critically at their own behavior when they think they’re on the proper end of an argument. Did I say argument? I meant crusade. A lot of people seem pretty darn convinced they are on the side of the angels and destiny has foreseen that their worldview will win the day, every issue, every time. Because that’s how disagreement is framed, of course; winners and losers. Never two well-intentioned, good-hearted people who, due to differing thought processes and life experiences, happen to have drawn two separate conclusions about an issue, but as a battle laid out by the fates that can have only one outcome – the correct outcome. There is right and wrong, good and evil, progress and regress, white hats vs. black ones. There’s no safe haven that isn’t a battleground, no common space where we can live side by side and not be at each other’s throats.
In this climate – two sides at war and both of them convinced that they’re not only right, but are actually God’s/the universe’s Chosen People, where every issue you encounter, no matter how small or silly, looks like a fine spot for a skirmish – why expend valuable energy scrutinizing your own behavior? For surely all behavior, no matter how odious, no matter how divisive, is justified if this is Perpetual War and you are on the side of the angels! If Beloved Tribe has been sanctified by the Holy Forces of Righteousness, surely everything one does and says in its name, no matter how counterproductive or awful or mean-spirited, is justified in the name of the greater good. You may be just a lowly tribesman with a Twitter account, but you are on a sacred mission. You aren’t being an a-hole, heaven forfend! You’re giving witness, testifying your faith, proselytizing to the heathens.
Now, as you have probably already suspected, I happen to believe that in our Felix/Oscar dynamic, one of the parties is, at present, much more in the wrong than the other. I happen to believe that one side of our Odd Couple has given significant ground in the Culture Wars over the last 50 years. While very far from perfect, one side of our Odd Couple has admitted that they were mistaken about some things and has loosened up a lot, to the benefit of everyone. I also happen to believe that the other side of our Odd Couple has given up nothing and demands additional, ever-more extreme concessions with every passing day. They admit no blame, accept no guilt, show no remorse, preferring instead to play with Civil War Brand matches in a house made of gasoline-soaked straw.
But that doesn’t matter. Savage me in the comments if you will (and I know that you will) but believe it or not, it really doesn’t make a smidge of difference what I believe. I don’t expect anyone reading this to agree with my personal take on American history or modern society or anything at all, really. And I don’t have to agree with yours, either. Roommates don’t have to agree. We just gotta live together. Our philosophical beliefs, no matter how heartfelt, are irrelevant. Who is right and who is wrong is irrelevant. Who will win in the end is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter because none of us will ever change our mind any more than Felix will suddenly embrace chaos and bacteria or Oscar will become an acolyte of Marie Kondo. Our beliefs do not matter one iota, shut up about your beliefs for Pete’s sake, we all already know what each other is thinking. Saying what you think again louder and more vehemently does not accomplish anything.
How about instead, all of us taking a moment and looking at ourselves and our tribe. Self-critically. Not expressing for the umpteenth time the intricacies of what we believe and why — we’ve done that ad nauseum –but thinking about how we act towards others who don’t share our beliefs. Hold up that measuring stick and judge yourself using your own standards for civil behavior. Break out that dusty old Golden Rule. Think very long and hard about what you and your team have personally done to contribute to our nation becoming a shitshow and what you personally can do to make that better (you can’t control the team, I get that). Because I don’t find very many people are at present living up to their own criteria for what it means to live in a civil-yet-diverse society.
“But this isn’t about minor quibbles involving roommates,” you protest. “This is over things that MATTER!!” That’s right, it IS about things that matter, things that are life and death issues of critical importance and will affect people all around the world for generations to come and that is why civility matters even more so. We. have. got. to. get. along. Because if we don’t learn how, and soon, we will perish. We won’t need climate change or hordes of illegal immigrants to wipe us out; we’ll do it ourselves, and we’ll do it over freaking Star Wars.
Fact – if you don’t really understand why the other guys think they way they do, and when they try to tell you, you blatantly refuse to shoulder even the teensiest smidge of the blame and instead turn it around on them as yet another opportunity to tell them all the many reasons why they are wrong, stupid, and evil, the opportunity for finding consensus will forever be lost. Imagine if instead of being magnanimous and conciliatory, Felix and/or Oscar refused to let it go. They kept right on arguing. Blamed everything on the other guy. Calling him out on things that he didn’t even do, things people he was barely affiliated with did. Kept bringing up events that happened ten, twenty, a hundred years ago. What if Oscar and/or Felix twisted words and took things out of context and even stretched the truth to the breaking point in order to win? Would that argument have ended amicably, without resentment? Would the other guy have stepped up to shoulder his share of the blame or would he have said “Screw you” and further escalated the argument? What would YOU do if someone who was most decidedly not 100% right demanded you admit they were 100% right? Would that kind of behavior have been conducive to sharing the same tiny space?
We HAVE to live together. No choice. No option. We can live in peace or not. To live in peace, we have to make peace. There is nothing wrong with making peace. Peace is good, right? Wanting to set aside our differences and come together as a nation, as a people, is not a character flaw. We are going to tear ourselves apart if trying to make peace and build bridges even in the smallest of ways continues to be painted as weakness. Civility is not defeat nor is it surrender. Civility is a necessity when two people of wildly differing worldviews and values systems like Oscar and Felix have to coexist. A person is not a loser or a quisling if they choose to be gracious, even conciliatory, to someone with whom they vigorously disagree. A person is not caving or selling out by genuinely trying to understand where someone else is coming from. It’s something all of us should aspire to.
Y tho?? Why make peace at all? Why try to build consensus when it is sooooo blatantly obvious that my side/your side is in the right? Well, as good ol’ Dr. Phil says, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” I would take this even farther and say, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to survive as a culture?”
A friend of mine said once that no matter what we do or say (we meaning the relative moderates of all stripes who are the meager filling in the American Odd Couple sandwich), the two dominant American worldviews are not going away any time soon and we (meaning all of us) had better find a way to help the two sides coexist before we really do start fighting the World’s Stupidest Civil War aka the Seinfeld War: the War About Nothing. But I’m not sure we can until enough of us have an Odd Couple moment, stopping the blahdi-blahdi-blah not to lecture the other guy about all the many ways they’re in error or to mock or belittle or demonize them but to listen, actually listen to what they’re saying. Not what you assume that they’re saying, but the actual words emanating from their vocal cords. And to maybe, just maybe admit ok wow, you’re right, not about everything but about some things, me and mine do have some fault in all this, we haven’t been fair, I get it, here are the ways in which I see that I’m wrong, and I’ll do better in the future.
C’mon, you cannot really believe that you and yours are right all the time on everything and the other side never makes any valid points. Can you really truly believe that?
Things are not gonna improve and will most probably continue to get worse until at least some people – because as we all know, not everyone will rise to the occasion and there will be holdouts and wackadoos and extremists entrenched on both sides and the holdouts and wackadoos and extremists on their side do not justify bad behavior from everyone on yours – lay down their arms and say TO THE JERKS ON THEIR OWN SIDE “stop what you’re doing, this isn’t constructive, and what’s more, it’s wrong.” Not the jerks on the other side, the jerks on your OWN side, because waiting around to change until the other guy changes first is a recipe for no one ever changing.
Imagine if instead of taking any and every opportunity to rip each other new a-holes over our genuinely considered and closely held beliefs, we sat down and had a beer and like Felix and Oscar did, of our own free will took responsibility for the stuff our side has done wrong. We already know what our differences are, let’s quit droning on and on and on about those and discuss our similarities. And one of our similarities is that we’ve both screwed the pooch quite royally at times. Let’s start with both of us admitting that and see where our friendship goes. It worked for Oscar and Felix, maybe it will work for us too. Because shouting our beliefs back and forth into each other’s faces isn’t working. It’s time to start biting our tongues and talking about the weather instead.
Muggy, isn’t it?
We aren’t going to agree on everything. We don’t have to agree on, well, really anything, if we in good faith can’t. But accept those disagreements as being in good faith rather than this good vs. evil mindset we’ve fallen into where the other guy is some sort of monster or demon that must be despised. Because we have to live together or else we have to fight to the death and if we go down that road, folks, there ain’t no guarantee that your side, whatever that may be, will be the winning side. What’s more, there’s a pretty high probability that even IF your side is the winning side, the price we all pay for the misadventure will not be worth it. I envision a lot of cold, hungry people standing around campfires and scratching their MRSA-infected chilblains in the destroyed wilderness that was once America while wolves howl in the distance (no doubt attracted by the mounds of rotting corpses in the background), saying to each other with mouths full of teeth even more rotten than the mounds of corpses nearby, “Bruh, I sure do wish I could go back in time to when my biggest problem in life was what my cousin was posting about on Facebook and not, like wolves, and stuff?”
What we’re doing now is mutually assured destruction. We gotta make a better choice before it’s too late. It’s civilization, my peeps. Maintain it. Compromising may be required. And golden, golden silence.
In other words, be a good roommate.
Photo by HotlantaVoyeur